Visa delays frustrate Queenstown bosses

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Frustrated Queenstown hospitality and tourism bosses say work visa delays are crippling some businesses in the resort.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) admits staffing levels at its Queenstown branch have been unable to cope with a surge in demand for migrant workers.

It has drafted in extra staff and some applications have been transferred to Christchurch to help out.

Legal experts say INZ has also tightened its Queenstown operations – with the branch viewed as being previously too soft on migrant applications.

But local Tourism Industry Association NZ hotels chair Penny Clark says some businesses are waiting more than a month for even a response: “It’s a big staffing issue; people are being left severely short.”

Clark adds laws which state employers must make every effort to find Kiwi employees before hiring foreigners are compounding the matter.

Businesses must also re-advertise positions each time a migrant worker employed by them applies for a work visa extension, unless it’s a job where there’s a recognised shortage of skilled workers.

It’s unrealistic in seasonal resorts, she says.

“We can’t offer jobs for 12 months of the year – we need six-month working holiday people,” Clark says.

“No Kiwi from Auckland is going to move here for waiting jobs and making beds, and there are not enough in town.”

A Queenstown bar and restaurant owner says working visa extensions and applications are a “nightmare”.

“It’s a lot of work and it’s stressful,” he says.

“We understand the logic behind it but it’s just not practical in Queenstown. The new liquor licensing laws mean we need bar management staff we trust.

“For other positions, a chef could leave for example and you’ll need someone immediately. And there just aren’t many Kiwi chefs.”

Sixty employers were booked to attend a seminar led by law firm Lane Neave at The Rees hotel last night.

Lane Neave partner Mark Williams says: “There’s a perception from INZ that Queenstown employers generally aren’t testing the local labour market thoroughly enough or giving New Zealanders a fair go.

“The example I give, is an employer advertised a position and got 20 applications from New Zealanders and didn’t interview anybody, just gave the migrant the job.

“They’re bringing Queenstown in line with the rest of the country, taking a tough stance and applying the policy.

“Because it’s been so different for so long it’s quite an unusual experience for Queenstown employers.”

The issue was raised with Prime Minister John Key at the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce meeting last Friday.

The INZ Queenstown branch manager quit last year and in recent months the office, at Remarkables Park, has been run by the Dunedin office’s immigration manager, who spends every second week in Queenstown.

A new manager has been appointed and will start by the end of the month.

INZ’s general manager of Visa Services Nicola Hogg says Queenstown experienced an unexpected increase in applications from October to December, resulting in longer processing times.

“Immigration officers therefore need to be satisfied there are no suitable New Zealanders available for a job offered to a temporary migrant,” Hogg says.

Hogg says employers seeking workers for low-paid positions are not expected to advertise nationally but need to provide evidence they’ve advertised locally.

Pier 19 and Captain’s restaurateur Grant Hattaway, president of the Southern Lakes Restaurant Association, says his business are among 30 locally in a partnership programme with INZ.

“So we get an answer in five working days,” he says.

“Personally we’ve had no problems with immigration. We hire lots of working visa people – there aren’t Kiwis available down here.”

The Queenstown branch is one of nine offices threatened with closure as INZ moves its operations online.

INZ encourages any employers with concerns to contact them directly.